Bilingual is Better
Photo by Esparta

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico - Photo by Esparta

Although this is the first time we’re doing this, both Ana Lilian and I are so sure you’re going to so thoroughly enjoy the following essay, that the decision to post it was not hard to make.

We first learned about Susan McKinney de Ortega through a message she sent to let us know about her own blog and how she occasionally writes about raising two bilingual and bicultural teenage girls in San Miguel de Allende, México.  The more we read about her and her family the more we wanted details. Luckily, she had written all about it in the short story “Two Red Lines” you’re about to read which was originally published in  One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love, edited and with an introduction by Rebecca Walker.  We were thrilled when we found out we could republish it in its entirety and now we share it with you.

Note: Because of its length, we’ve decided to publish Susan’s essay in two parts. Please come back tomorrow so you don’t miss the second part of this eye-opening story told from the heart.

Two Red Lines – Part One

A friend I haven’t seen in twenty-five years found me on the Internet and wrote from Minnesota, “Would love to see your daughters.  Do they look Hispanic?”

My daughters were born in Mexico to a Mexican father and me, a former Philadelphia Irish Catholic.  “Do they speak English?” and “Are there decent schools down there?” are other questions I get from Americans who don’t quite understand how I could have married a poor kid from the barrio and never returned to the land of opportunity. At my wedding, half of the guests finishing my mother-in-law’s chicken mole were making bets about how long we would stay married.  Odds were six months to a year.

Author Susan McKinney de Ortega

Author Susan McKinney de Ortega

In fact, Carlos and I have been married for twelve years.  He is still fifteen years younger than I, but we are no longer poor.  Our differences and lack of a clearly mapped future is what made my mother call a family meeting when I announced my pending wedding thirteen years ago.  My siblings were summoned to Philadelphia from Washington DC and Boston and the Virgin Islands by phone.  The theme: How to get Susan out of Mexico.

“She’ll lead her life in poverty,” my mother wailed.

“She’s always liked to shock people.  Maybe this is only a way to get attention,” my brother John offered.

“She is 34 years old.  She appears to be happy.  I think we need to go down there and support her,” my father said.

My father’s gift as a basketball coach was that he was a motivator.  He got stellar performances from players by believing in them and guiding them to believe in themselves. On this, he built winning teams, and earned two NBA championship rings.  At games and award ceremonies, I was the first on my feet, cheering louder than the rest.

Growing up surrounded by the macho world of sports where men adjusted their jock straps at the foul line and sunk buzzer shots to win ball games, one might think I’d end up with a headlining man of some sort.  A coach, an athletic director, a referee even.

I found instead a quiet guy who hadn’t finished high school and could barely grow a moustache; who, true, spent his afternoon on the town’s basketball courts but otherwise was the farthest thing from the world I came from I could imagine.  He wasn’t even tall.

In 1992 I came to San Miguel de Allende in the Mexican Central highlands to work on a memoir about trying to find a place in that athletic world. Writing, I discovered I’d coasted through my young life soaking up attention from being the coach’s daughter.  In first grade, Sister Virgo pasted a gold star on my Peter Pan collar when the Hawks of St. Joseph’s College beat Villanova.  At the end of my freshman year in college, I watched the Trailblazers win the 1977 NBA Championship and the following day, rode through downtown Portland on the back of a convertible in the victory parade.  In Indiana, when my father coached the Pacers, I was interviewed on radio about what it was like to live with Jack McKinney.  As a result, I’d never developed a fully formed identity of my own.  Perhaps I knew I had to cross a border to do so.

The day before I left for Mexico, I posed for a picture in the alley behind the White Dog Café, where I bartended.  I wore white socks, Doc Maartens and a Doris Day dress with darts under the breasts from a vintage shop on Walnut and sat on the hood of the 1985 Dodge I would leave with my roommate.  My legs were folded to one side; I held one hand behind my head.

“Act your age,” my mother sometimes said to me, half-joking.  I was 33 years old.  If I acted my age, I would be having children.

By the end of that first Mexican summer, I’d made some friends, written some chapters and fallen in love with the rich colors, the deep sunlight, the lime trees, the quiet cobblestone streets, the unhurried life I led in San Miguel.  But my money was running out.

I walked to an English language school one afternoon, resume and references in hand.  But the director asked me only one question, “Can you take all the afternoon classes?”

I became an English teacher.

Photo by jrsnchzhrs

What was it about the nineteen-year old with a Flock of Seagulls haircut sitting in a front desk that first day that captured me?  That, once he took off his black sunglasses, he had nice eyes?   That he saw my nervousness and smiled encouragingly?  That he watched me, not suggestively like the other boys did, but with compassion, as I gamely struggled to speak enough Spanish to teach them English?

One day, walking up and down the aisles while the students worked on a verb exercise, I pointed to a bead cross Carlos wore around his neck.  “That’s nice,” I said, then felt foolish.

Leaving the school building in the afternoon, I heard footsteps behind me.  When I turned, Carlos lifted the cross from his neck and placed it over my head.  I tried to picture a guy in Philly giving me a simple gift then walking away, but could only imagine the usual – conversations in a bar with all threads leading back to the real topic: whether I would go home with him that night.  I walked from the school grounds, feeling the ghost of Carlos’ hands where they’d floated past my head and lightly touched my shoulders.

Carlos waited after classes during those first weeks and casually mentioned on three occasions we should go to Laberintos, a San Miguel disco, before I accepted.  I was the teacher after all.  And he was nineteen.  And gorgeous.  I brought a friend along so it wouldn’t be a date.

By the end of the evening, Carlos and I were kissing under the glittery disco ball and through the next year, although we kept our distance on school grounds, we were inseparable.

Teaching a few classes a week for five dollars an hour didn’t leave me much to live on.  Eventually I moved out of my small apartment and into Carlos’ house, where we shared his childhood bed in a room occupied by us and his brother and sister. This was normal for Carlos’ family, as, besides the kitchen, the house had only two rooms.  I had to adjust however to sleeping in my clothes like they did, changing in the shower room and having the naked overhead light bulb turned on whenever anyone entered the room no matter how late at night.

The house sat on a tiny plot of land on the edge of town.  It had no telephone or hot water and about ten people living in it, including the ex-girlfriend of one of Carlos’ brothers and their two children.  Then, a cousin from León left her no-good husband and came with four children to live in the house.  On top of that, a neighbor gave Carlos’ mother a litter of piglets, which she put in the home’s floor-to-ceiling bird hutch.

I was absorbed into the family without much fuss.  I concluded it was because we caused the least amount of problems.  I had a job, Carlos went to school and we had no extra-relationship children.

Probably hardest for me to get used to was how the broom would begin to scritch the floor of the room over Carlos’ bed every morning at seven.  It scolded me, “Get up, get up, get up.”   All the other women of the house were already out of bed, sweeping, mopping, mashing frijoles, trudging to a neighbor’s house to buy fresh atole, a thick corn drink I couldn’t stomach.  Nobody roused me to get my blonde head out of bed and the men slept as late as they pleased.  What was my place?  I wanted to bond with the women but was furious with their servitude.  So I stayed in bed, eyes wide open from 7 a.m. on, poking my boyfriend so he could wake up and feel the injustice too.

As the blush of new love deepened, I realized I had gotten myself into a life where good times meant a meal with meat.  “Here’s a whole group of people living the simple life.  Why can’t I?” I asked myself.  “Because you weren’t born into this and there is nothing wrong with having hot showers and a washing machine,” I answered.  Perhaps most daunting was the lack of privacy.  To find it, I climbed to the roof, sat under the fluttering laundry and read.

What am I doing here? I asked myself daily.  I’m barely earning enough to live and my boyfriend hasn’t finished high school.  I’m supposed to be a person with a job, deadlines, a cup of coffee, a newspaper, I told myself.  And a partner with a future.

“Oh, yeah?  According to whom?” the devil on my left shoulder argued.

I imagined packing my things and going back to Philadelphia.  Back to bartending and getting home at 3 AM.  Getting out of the cab and stabbing looks into every dark corner of my South Philly street to let attackers know they would not catch me off guard.   Going to parties in giant warehouse lofts, paying a cover at the door so the artist friends who lived there could have their heat turned back on.   Sitting in my room alone in the winter chill, trying to write.  It made me shudder.

I tried to imagine myself married to a nice Philadelphia lawyer who lived for Saturday football games on a big screen in a big house, but only saw someone else next to that man.  I could not picture myself.

So I stayed.  I learned to make Carlos’ mother’s salsas.  I helped her cut toenails off the chicken feet she would fry and sell to neighborhood children.  I paid the ex-girlfriend to hand-wash my clothes and I walked into town, creating my own private space on the streets.  Carlos and I watched basketball games in the park and when he talked about dropping out of school, I encouraged him to finish.

The nagging thoughts I had about returning to my respectable life were surrendered one day in April, 1994 when I sat on the side of a bathtub and watched double lines appear on a pregnancy test strip. Two red lines pointing my life in a new direction.

To be continued… Please come back tomorrow for the second part! (You can subscribe to our feed here to make sure you don´t miss it!)

Susan McKinney de Ortega is a Philadelphia-born writer living in San Miguel de Allende with her Mexican-born family.  Her fiction and essays have appeared Mexico: A Love Story (Seal Press, 2006); Not What I Expected, The Unpredictable Road from Womanhood to Motherhood (Paycock Press, 2007), Sport Literate literary magazine (www.sportliterate.com, spring, 2009), www.salonmagazine.com (1999) and www.elevenbulls.com (2000), Philadelphia Stories (www.philadelphiastories.org, 2006) and The San Miguel Writer (1994).   She rides dressage but with not nearly the talent of her bilingual teenaged daughters.

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